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Condo Collapse: Former Maintenance Manager William Espinosa Was Concerned About Saltwater Intrusion

MIAMI (CBSMiami) - William Espinosa said he was stunned when he saw the images of the condominium collapse in Surfside.

"I was there from 1995 to about 2000," Espinosa explained.

He said he oversaw the maintenance staff, including four housekeepers and three maintenance workers.

"Basic repairs," he noted.

And yet one memory stuck with him, the amount of seawater that would make its way into the underground garage.

"Any time that we had high tides away from the ordinary, any King Tide or anything like that, we would have a lot of saltwater come in through the bottom of the of the foundation," he claimed, adding they had to use two large pumps to try and remove the rising water. "But it was so much water, all the time, that the pumps never could keep up with it."

The cause of the collapse will likely take months to determine, but the condo association's attorney said after the collapse building managers discovered a large hole under the building which may have been caused by saltwater intrusion. Other experts have also suggested that whatever caused that building to fail happened at the base of the building and underneath it.

Water, particularly saltwater, is extremely corrosive, experts say, especially in older concrete which is more porous than the type of concrete used today. The saltwater attacks the pillars and foundation and when it dries, salt crystals slowly eat their way into the concrete eventually damaging the steel and rebar. As that rebar rusts, it expands, causing the concrete around it to crack and chip away. In turn that exposes more rebar, which also rusts and expands, creating a cycle that can ultimately cause the structure to fail. It can take years, or even decades for that to happen.

Espinosa said he has no idea if what he witnessed in the late Nineties contributed to the building's collapse, but he thought it was important that everything be examined.

"The water would just basically sit there and then it would just seep downward," Espinosa said. "It would just go away after a while. And I would think, where does that water go? Because it had to go in through somewhere. I'm talking about a foot, sometimes two feet of water in the bottom of the parking lot, the whole parking lot."

Espinosa's account could take on added significance in the wake of the building collapse and a 2018 engineering report, conducted by the condominium association, which was part of the building's 40-year recertification process. That report identified major structural issues in the pool and garage area, including cracks in the walls and foundation as well as exposed rebar.

One of the issues cited in the 2018 engineering report was a failure to properly repair cracks and openings in the concrete.

"I remember having some exposed rebar all the time," Espinosa said. "They would come in, plaster it up with cement and then it would reappear in other spots. But nothing like a real big, big crack or anything like that. My biggest issue, which was it was just the water. The amount of water would come in there."

"It was all saltwater," he said. "It was coming from the ocean."

Espinosa said when he raised concerns about the water to the managers of the building, he was told not to worry about it.

"They said that has always been going on for years," he said, adding he was told just to keep using the pumps.

"But I go, `You know, that's it's endless,'" he said. "Every month we had a problem with this. And I go, this is just not normal. I mean, this is just too much water."

The attorney for the condo association did not return calls, texts, or emails seeking comment.

Espinosa is saddened by the tragedy. He said he has fond memories of the people who lived there.

"Everybody was very nice," he said. "I mean, they always took care of us working there."

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